The one thing that Mark regularly reminded me of, right from when we first started talking, through to editing this story, was that he didn't want it to be all about him. I reaffirmed with him that I couldn't avoid that and that it did, indeed, need to be about him. In sharing his story, he would be giving others suffering from depression permission to share their story as well. And, more importantly, for those surrounding people suffering from depression, it would encourage them to listen.
When Stephen from Gentleman's Ride got in touch with me to ask if I'd be interested in making a film for this year's DGR ride, I was both happy and anxious. Happy in that, from their wealth of rider stories, I was finally been given the chance to help tell one. Anxious, in that I knew that I couldn't misstep lest I betray viewers somehow, undermining their experiences with mental illness and depression. Stephen had asked if I could do a film about Mark Atkinson (the brother of another Atkinson, Chris, who you may recall featured in my episode "Romance"). They had met at a recent Aftershock event on Chris' property and after they got talking Mark had revealed that he had been suffering from depression and panic attacks. In addition to that, he was also recently diagnosed with prostate cancer.
After getting Mark's permission, Stephen put us in touch and we got talking. Firstly, we shared our experiences with tinnitus. If you've never experienced it and are one of the lucky people who can experience true silence, it can be described generally as a piercing ringing sound that resonates from inside your own head. It's a condition that does get to me from time to time, but as I have had it as long as I can remember I have learned to tune it out. Mark described it to me as being the catalyst of his spiral into depression. In short, I was able to relate. Not only to that, but also the depression. I'll freely admit that it's something that I am afflicted with from time to time and for no apparent reason. In my older years, I've come to anticipate that moods that come over me. I'll let those around me, particularly my wife and kids, that I'm having a hard time and they'll give me the space and comfort I need until I come through the other side. Fortunately those episodes are few and far between. Yet it's an experience I could relate to Mark's own and became one of the key objectives of this video: to share the experience of depression and anxiety.
I spent four days filming, talking, eating and walking with Mark in and around his home just outside of Cygnet, Tasmania, the southern most state of Australia. I met with his friends and neighbours and fell in love with the landscape that Mark felt was playing a key part in the management of his illness. I too felt it's medicinal qualities, feeling nourished with each day that I spent there. After leaving Mark and Tasmania I took time to interview Mark's daughter, Kate, and his youngest son, Kel. Both Stephen and I thought it was important to incorporate their stories also so as to show their experience in trying to help someone with a mental illness. For someone who has no experience with mental illness, it can be a very confronting thing. How to distinguish the illness from the person. How to treat an unseen injury, an unquantifiable suffering. Certainly, it's simply enough to sympathise with a broken leg or some other physical ailment. But for one that can't be seen, it would make the uninitiated very unsure of how they could help.
Putting Mark's story with interviews from him, Kate and Kel was one of the harder and also most rewarding edits I've had to complete. If you have read any of my other posts, you'll have probably seen my mentioned of "finding the story in the edit". And it was ever more true with Mark's story. I always strive to find the balance between detail and pacing. Telling the right amount of information without getting bogged down in it. I think of it laying down enough world information to let the person shine through. One of my favourite parts of this process is finding the stories within stories and one of those is when Mark's daughter, Kate tells about how she "got him" and held his gaze. It's a powerful moment and one that sets the hair on my arms standing straight.
Through the 3 weeks it took to complete the edit (working on and off) I noticed that my own tinnitus had become quite intense. Working on a video that features tinnitus completely neutralises my ability to tune it out. And so it goes from being in the background to being in the foreground. Having to deal with it only stressed me out and further compounded the intensity. But at the time I knew whatever discomfort I was enduring would be worth it once the video was released.
At the first preview with Stephen and the other boys in the DGR office, we were all nervous to see it played. Myself, unsure about how they'd take it and they unsure whether it would have the effect they were hoping for. Over 11 minutes in that office while Survivor first played, I sat to the side and tried to watch their faces and study their body language. I tried to detect whatever reaction they might have over the duration of the video. No one moved a muscle. When it finished, they all turned to me with some positive feedback, but they clearly looked like they were processing what they'd just seen. For me, that was a pretty good response.
While I was waiting for the video to get the final sign-off I sent it to Mark for a private viewing. I thought giving him some time with it before it was released to the world might give him some buffer to the attention he'd be receiving. He said it took him a few days to build up the courage to watch it. He called me, in tears, the moment he did. I can't recall the whole conversation, but he said he was so happy with what I'd done and was just so proud of his kids but so sorry he'd put them through all this. Mark hadn't heard their telling of their experiences with him before and it hit him hard, he said. I reassured him that they're stronger for it and that these stories are important for those who haven't experienced a mental illness to understand it from an outsider's perspective. We spoke for a time about the filming experience again and we both agreed that it was such a wonderful experience for both of us. Mark had finished with thanking me and making him feel safe through it all.
There were no requests for changes from the higher-ups, which is a pretty rare thing. The running time, which I thought would be an issue for what is essentially a promotional video, wasn't even raised. And so, "Survivor" was released. The feedback was overwhelming with many viewers coming forward to share their own experiences with mental illness. Some admitted that they had been alone in their suffering for a long time and said how much of a relief it was to know that others shared their affliction. All in all, it was quite a cathartic experience seeing how the world reacted to Survivor. Mark, while initially reluctant to, was reading peoples comments to him and responding.
He would later tell me that this whole experience felt like another step in his healing; An extension of his sharing with people the fact of his mental illness.